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Under the General Education Bill of 1909, the State of Tennessee established normal schools to train teachers in each of the state’s three grand divisions. The purpose of these schools was to establish standards or norms for teaching. At the time, the majority of teachers held third-grade certificates, indicating that they not only lacked college training but also high school training. The average teacher salary was $130 per year and the school term lasted 93 days.

The State Board of Education chose a site for the West Tennessee Normal School six miles from downtown Memphis on Midland and Southern avenues adjacent to the Southern Railway. In addition to the convenience of railway transportation, the City of Memphis agreed to make immediate water and sewage connections and extend the Buntyn street-car line. Construction of the West Tennessee State Normal School began in June of 1911.

Faculty, staff and students gather on the steps of the Administration Building in the early days of the University.
Faculty, staff and students gather on the steps of the Administration Building in the early days of the University.

Seymour Mynders was chosen by the State Board of Education as president of the new normal school. While supervising the building of the school, Mynders selected the school faculty, prepared the curriculum and wrote the school bulletin. Mynders hired 17 faculty members to teach the “Normal Course,” a two-year course of study that prepared teachers for the elementary public schools. Upon completion of the course, graduates received a diploma, which served as a life certificate of qualification to teach all grade levels in any public school in Tennessee. The curriculum was divided into nine departments: English, education, history, mathematics, science, language, manual training, agriculture and the training school.

The law establishing the school provided that it would be open to white residents of Tennessee who were a minimum of 16 years of age and had completed at least the elementary school course prescribed for the public schools of the state. Applicants had to present a certificate of good moral character from a responsible person, and furnish evidence of being strong physically and free from chronic defects that would prevent satisfactory work as a student.

The school was tuition-free to all Tennessee students. The only monies collected were a $2 registration fee for each term and $1 for summer terms. Non-Tennessee residents were charged a tuition of $12 per term and the regular $2 registration fee.

The West Tennessee State Normal School officially opened on Sept. 10, 1912, at a cost of $450,000. The initial buildings on the 81-acre campus, nestled among magnificent oak trees and open fields, were the Administration/Academic Building and Mynders Hall. The three-story Administration/Academic Building had more than 50 rooms dedicated to classrooms, offices, laboratories and an auditorium. Mynders Hall — the girls’ dormitory — had 110 bedrooms, a parlor, kitchen, dining room, infirmary and quarters for the matron. Male students lived off campus in Prescott Flats, a two-story apartment building near the school; male athletes were housed in rooms set aside in the Administration Building.

To accommodate the school, Southern Railroad established Normal Station, a Craftsman-style waiting station that served the rail and streetcar lines. Upon arrival at the school, students could have their baggage carried by mule wagons to the dormitory. In many instances, male students carried the baggage on pushcarts or rolling bed frames. Male students frequently carried the women’s bags up to their floors, under the watchful eye of chaperones, as otherwise men were not allowed in women’s dormitories. For a five-cent fee, students could ride the streetcar to downtown, a trip that lasted approximately 40 minutes.

Approximately 200 students enrolled for the first semester of classes.

— by Janann Sherman,

with special thanks to Cynthia Sadler and Rachel South

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Last Updated: 1/8/13